What a Difference a Word Makes

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Can offensive language sabotage a whole election? It would be an understatement to say that language has played a critical role in the presidential campaign recently. Parents had to rethink letting their children watch the second presidential debate—educational value aside—because language that most parents never want their children to hear was at the heart of a controversy about whether a man who used such language is fit to be president. The candidates avoided using specific offensive words during the debate, but the conversation still had the potential to raise questions that parents would be uncomfortable discussing, and on CNN at least, a single offensive word was not bleeped out, and the audience heard it over and over and over throughout the day and night. It immediately became the basis of jokes, memes, and late-night monologues. Donald Trump dismissed the sexual language both on- and off-stage as mere “locker room banter.” Those who withdrew their support for his campaign saw it differently, calling it a verbal description of sexual assault. Anderson Cooper, one of the debate moderators, bluntly clarified what Trump had said on tape and what it meant: “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Two commentators on CNN later got into a heated argument when Trump spokeswoman Scottie Nell Hughes asked Republican spokeswoman Ana Navarro not to use Trump’s word because her young daughter was watching—this in spite of the fact that the tape of Trump using the word had been played repeatedly.

A number of people on social media and elsewhere have pointed out that the one word that did not describe their reaction to the Trump tape was “surprise.” Trump has made a habit of using derogatory terms to describe women, immigrants, POWs, and racial and ethnic groups, and being the Republican nominee for president has not slowed him down much. His hours of “locker room banter” with Howard Stern took place over seventeen years. In response to the recently released tape, he presents himself as superior to Bill Clinton because where he only used words against women, Clinton acted. Hillary Clinton was guilty of using offensive language when she labeled half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” a phrase that has come back to haunt her over and over again. In the second debate, Trump attacked her for being unwilling to use the words “radical Islamic terrorists,” pointing out, “To solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least, say the name. She won’t say the name. . . . And before you solve it, you have to say the name.”

There may have been more acrimonious presidential campaigns in the past, but there has never been one more carefully documented or one that has spawned so much discussion on social media. Words take on a life of their own as they get recorded and shared in ever-expanding ripples. The written and digitalized record of this campaign is not one that any of us as Americans can be proud of.

Credit:  Stockicide, by stock78, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.